Writer: John Byrne
Director: Elizabeth Newman
A linguistical legend within his own right, it’s been a fair few years since the Scottish writer John Byrne has produced a play. In 1977, the debut production of Writer’s Cramp catapulted Byrne into the hall of Scottish cultural nobility. From pen to palette, Tennis Elbow reverses the gender focus of Writer’s Cramp, which swarmed around the failures of somewhat unsuccessful writer-painter Francis Seneca McDade. All the audience need to know before listening to Tennis Elbow is the clever conceptual mirroring, as some forty plus years later, it is the time for Pamela Crichton Capers (McDade’s wife) to take a turn in the spotlight.
Replaying the course of her life through figurative reminders of letters, reports, flashbacks, and her creations Tennis Elbow is segmented, brought together by director Elizabeth Newman in a joint venture from Pitlochry Festival Theatre and The Royal Lyceum, in collaboration with Naked Productions. And though it exists within the same realms as Byrne’s previous work, Tennis Elbow maintains a sense of autonomy as a re-working. As such, it unfolds, partially disguising itself as a surreptitious satire and autobiography while retaining an individual nature and lashing humour.
Pamela’s less than subtle placeholder as an autobiographical creation manifests in her adoration for alliteration, making for some of the production’s cannier and more in-depth scenes, which roll easily across lister’s imaginations. Kirsty Stuart is evident in her grasp of the story’s structure and both the humour and paranoid motivations of the character. Disappointingly, despite the acrobatics of rhythmic pacing, poetry takes a more solitary place in Tennis Elbow, rearing a plucky reminder that the importance is not always to understand something – but to enjoy and embrace the glory of its impact.
And despite underpinning and capturing the comical nature, relishing in the deceitful and maintained wit of Byrne’s script, Tennis Elbow has spaces that fail to construct an entire tapestry. In a remnant of its predecessor’s Festival Fringe success, the production evokes a sense of renewed debut, a return to playwriting but not entirely pulled together. As Pamela’s story begins to close, gaps emerge in the span of her life and make for disappointing conclusions. The routines, skits, sketches, and dialogue are snappy and witty, and as tight as Newman’s direction draws them together, the gaps often leave a little too much to decipher. And as frustrating as it is to concede, an audio production like Tennis Elbow is designed for the stage, and the lacking visual elements do create difficulties in determining characteristics.
What promise is there is exceptional and, without question, has the aspirations to be as successful and beloved as Byrne’s previous play. Newman understands the importance of communicating the transitions between Maureen Beattie’s sublime narration and Stuart’s escapades as Pamela. Though minor parts trip on the multitude of roles, the core cast achieve an intimate connection and chemistry, thanks to Alastair McGregor’s sound design.
Sharpening its satirical teeth on the pomp and pose of the arts community, the brilliance in Byrne’s writing captures both the grievances and acceptances of the literary world he creates; lampooning and understanding. There is a substantial nucleus of humour as a deeply funny and rhythmically written piece, but there are damp moments. The difficulties we face right now have pushed creators to produce exceptional audio productions, but sometimes one comes around which begs for a life on the stage – Tennis Elbow is surely due for a chance.
Available here until 8 May 2021